Cinematek, Brussels, 11 April 2019
Stephen Dwoskin’s characterization of Jacques Ledoux as ‘one of the few individuals to have had any true feeling and understanding of the independent, experimental and personal cinema’ may sound excessive, but it serves to honour Ledoux’s practical realization of these virtues in one of the truly seminal film festivals – the International Experimental Film Competition, aka EXPRMNTL, most often held at, and usually known as, Knokke, a resort town on the North Sea coast. Ledoux brought the festival into being in 1949, as curator of the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique (now the Cinematek), at a time when the avant-garde was at a low ebb in ruined post-war Europe.
The Belgian setting was appropriate. Almost twenty years before, at the end of 1930, the second International Congress of Independent Cinema (the first congress was the more famous La Sarraz), held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, was the scene of a dispiriting rupture and reorientation within the European avant-garde. In Hans Richter’s account the ‘Internationale of the independent film’ that had been founded at La Sarraz only the previous year, on the eve of the Great Depression, ‘was dissolved after the members of all fourteen participating countries (except Italy [under] Mussolini and Spain [under] De Rivera) explained their desire to use the film more as a weapon in the fight against fascism’.
By 1949 many of the surviving members of pre-war independent cinema – including Richter himself – were in the US, where they had helped stimulate a newly vital American avant-garde. Ledoux’s festivals, as Dwoskin put it, ‘took the New American Cinema into Europe’, most dramatically in the third instalment, in 1963–4, when Jonas Mekas and co. arrived with Flaming Creatures and Scorpio Rising. By then Dwoskin, still in New York, was himself making films, and was associated with the New York Film-Makers’ Coop, and knew some of those whose films had been shown. By the time he arrived in England in September 1964, the films Mekas had brought to Knokke had been shown over the course of a week at the ICA, helping to stimulate avant-garde production in London.
By late 1966, when Ledoux began to tell interested parties across Europe that a fourth festival – EXPRMNTL 4 – was on the horizon, much had changed across the Channel, and Dwoskin had become involved in running the recently founded London Film-makers’ Co-op. Ledoux was – by glaring contrast with his rival Henri Langlois – a meticulous organizer, not only of his own film archive but of every aspect of office business. I was pleased to discover on a recent visit to the Cinematek’s archive that Langlois left researchers with copies of the subtly different form letters announcing the festival that he sent out to British journalists (600), associations (presumably meaning film societies – 500), film schools (40), and cinematheques (10, plus 30 archives).
Intriguingly, Dwoskin introduced himself to Ledoux not as a filmmaker, but as an author. In April 1967 he was contracted to write a book provisionally titled Underground Film, and so in July he wrote to Ledoux asking for press accreditation to allow him to cover it both for the book, ‘to be published next year’, and for the LFMC’s magazine Cinim. Only in a PS did he ask for submission forms for the competition – without saying that he himself would be submitting. Submit he did, though, with three of the films he had shot in New York and which Ron Geesin had given soundtracks in London (Soliloquy, Naissant and Chinese Checkers). For the latter two works, Dwoskin gave USA/Great Britain as country of production; for Soliloquy, it was just Great Britain, perhaps because the eponymous voiceover was read by Dwoskin’s then lover Leena Komppa, who lived with him in London.
The films were accepted, and it was arranged for a fourth film, Alone, to be shown out of competition, in the same programme as Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (Clarke was on the jury). Like its predecessor, EXPRMNTL 4 took place between Christmas and the New Year in a casino decorated with Magritte murals. Together, Dwoskin’s films won him a prize of $2,000 – a substantial amount at the time. The festival’s effect on Dwoskin’s career is incalculable; apart from the prize, it brought him into sustained contact with filmmakers and curators across the continent.
Dwoskin and Komppa were not the LFMC’s only representatives – Simon Hartog and Stacy Waddy both filmmakers, also attended, as well as John Latham. Only Waddy’s account of the festival, in New Worlds magazine, mentions the political demonstrations which feature so heavily in Brecht Debackere’s recent documentary EXPRMNTL – neither Hartog nor Dwoskin hint at it. The main prize winner was Michael Snow, for Wavelength, ushering in the vogue for ‘structural’ film that would become the signature style of the LFMC in the decade to come. Structural film would also have a considerable effect on local teen Chantal Akerman, who attended the festival and made her first film, Saute ma ville, a few months later.
Dwoskin’s relationship with the British structural filmmakers was complicated; he would come to feel that they controlled the way the history of the movement in Britain had been told. This was quite a way off on the evening of 29 December 1967, when Wavelength had its first public screening on the European side of the Atlantic – in a programme that ended with Scorsese’s prizewinning The Big Shave. In the book that Underground Film eventually became, the retitled as Film Is, Dwoskin printed two and a half pages of his notes on what he calls his ‘second viewing’ of Wavelength – literally notes as it unfolds like ‘hummmmm intense’ – together with the following comment: ‘When I first saw this film I was totally overwhelmed. I experienced a feeling of being within a sculptured space of movement without physically moving myself’.
The Dwoskin archive contains a notebook with his near-illegible remarks on all the films he saw at Knokke, including the first screening of Wavelength, but also what seems to be a single cryptic remark on its second screening at the festival, two and a half hours after the first: ‘2x nothing’, occupying an otherwise blank page – which we may take to be praise. The original notes he published have yet to be discovered.
Much to its publisher’s chagrin, Film Is, in which Dwoskin’s comments on Ledoux are also found, was published not in 1968, but in 1974–5, at the time of the fifth and as it turned out final Knokke festival. Dwoskin was a juror, and his former RCA student, Anna Ambrose, won a prize for her film Noodlespinner. A decade later Ambrose would make a documentary about Dwoskin for Channel 4. Her interviewees include Ledoux, together with another figure from EXPRMNTL 4 who would play a significant role in Dwoskin’s career, Paul Willemen who moved from Belgium to London in 1968 after serving as the festival’s photographer.
The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project is based at the University of Reading and supported by the AHRC. Follow its progress on Twitter: @DwoskinProject
Henry K. Miller is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Reading, and editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat.